Bjorn Claeson, Executive Director, SweatFree Communities
In a time of economic crisis and shifting paradigm the sweatfree movement faces an apparent dilemma. Cash-strapped states and cities appear to have fewer resources at their disposal to ensure they do not buy products made in sweatshop conditions, but increasing numbers of public officials seem morally and perhaps politically inclined to look more closely at the origins of the products they buy. The dilemma can be resolved by recognizing that ethical public procurement is not just a moral imperative, but also a strong economic stimulus measure. An investment in sweatfree purchasing is an investment in an economy with less sweat.
The habitual reaction to economic downturn – to buy cheap – will be difficult to break. That is why Wal-Mart, which promotes its “price leadership,” appears as a lone “bright spot” in a dismal retail climate despite its questionable labor practices. But our public institutions have a greater responsibility than individuals to treat purchasing as a tool of social policy that can advance a more sound economy that reflects citizens’ values and meets the needs of working people. By searching out the lowest price, without regard for the workers who make the product, large institutional buyers accelerate the race-to-the-bottom. Weakening labor standards will only deepen the economic crisis. A stronger economy requires more economic justice. Our public institutions should help to build economic strength by considering more than the price of the products they buy. They should ask about the workers who made the products: Are they paid a decent wage? Do they have reasonable working hours? Are they free to speak up about injustices in the workplace? Ultimately, workers who are better off will create wealth for everyone. Wealth does not “trickle down;” it springs up from a foundation of justice.
On November 4, 2008, the prison doors of the trickle down, free-market thinking that has captivated official U.S. economic imagination for decades slid open a crack. On November 5, leading media affirmed that the unfettered market does not necessarily produce social and economic wellbeing, but may breed insecurity and risk, sweatshops and exploitation, global warming and pollution. The New York Times, for example, proclaimed that Mr. Obama won the election because of the “utter failure of government to protect its people,” observing that government indeed has an important role in regulating the economy fairly in order to safeguard common goods such as healthcare, education, and the environment.
The barred doors of free-market thinking slid open enough that many who had long been struggling to escape experienced a sense of visceral relief, able, finally, to inhale a breath of fresh air that can fuel anew our social and economic imagination. No longer are we held hostage to a simplistic story which pits us (whites, Christians, freedom-lovers) against them (dark-skinned, Muslims, freedom-haters) and posits a host of binary oppositions in which (our) free-market capitalism is associated with freedom, democracy, light, and progress and (their) government with terror, socialism, darkness, and regression. Instead of struggling in vain with a mental straight jacket – “if you are not for us, you are against us” – we are now free to place ourselves in alternative narratives that may be as complicated as the story of our president-elect, as much Kenyan as Kansan, Christian but with Muslim family background, black and white – a story of a “mutt” as he referred to himself.
Complication liberates. Government is not a necessary evil! The free market does not solve all problems! “We” do not have all the solutions! “They” are not always the problem!
In our new narrative the Afghans and Iraqis, the poor and the oppressed, and all people for whom everyday is a life of terror, can be our brothers and sisters rather than distant and threatening others. Ultimately, there is only an “us;” no “us and them.” Government can be something more than an instrument of war, torture, and imprisonment; it can be re-conceived as a tool for the common good, and for social and economic justice at home and across the globe. The economy no longer has to lie beyond our imagination, a force beyond human influence that only experts trained to use arcane terminology can comprehend. Instead the economy can become a construct that serves the people by measuring both positive and negative influences of corporations and governments on people’s and the planet’s wellbeing.
The sweatfree movement can help to further liberate the social and economic imagination. Even during the darkest years of free-market orthodoxy, the movement articulated a set of alternative economic principles and convinced a host of states and local governments to adopt those principles in their purchasing policies. In imagining a new economy, we can take inspiration from these alternatives.
A new economy based on the principles of sweatfree purchasing could:
Lower the speed of financial transactions. Just as state and local officials must take the time to consider the workers behind the uniform labels in making sweatfree purchasing decisions those who now engage in lightning-fast speculative financial transactions for short-term gain could be required to make longer-term investments that yield broader social and economic benefits. Reckless speculation at unsafe speeds can be penalized. A slower economy can be a more humane economy.
Reintroduce democracy in the economy. Sweatfree purchasing is inspired and guided by grassroots campaigns that advocate for policies that reflect their values and priorities. Cities and states have established citizens’ advisory groups to guide policy implementation. When given the opportunity people want to be engaged as citizens lending their experience and wisdom to help shape an economy that is not just a thing for the experts to discuss and deliberate. A cocoon of obscure terminology surrounds the world of public procurement, but that does not mean that those not schooled in its language cannot impact it. Where lie the opportunities for citizen participation in the larger economic world? In state and local budgeting? In creating fair trade policy? In rooting out corruption in military contracting? In setting green standards for the auto industry? A stronger public voice in the economy would address its core problem: the socialization of cost and risk and the privatization of profit and benefit.
Create transparency. Some states and cities have dug down deep into supply chains to learn where and in what conditions uniforms and other apparel they buy are made. That information is now publicly available on websites despite the fact that part of the uniform industry still considers factory locations to be “trade secrets” or “proprietary information.” A transparent economy is a healthy one. When companies cannot pollute rivers and skies or use sweatshop labor in secret they will be more likely to innovate in more constructive ways to get an edge on the competition.
Place worker rights higher on the agenda. Cities and states that buy sweatfree look for quality and a good price, but not at the expense of workers’ rights. If the low bidder offers to sell products made in sweatshop conditions or does not say where they are made, it does not get the contract. After decades of seeing CEO-pay skyrocketing and corporations enjoying double digit profits while workers’ salaries stagnate even though they produce more than before, it is now time to put workers’ rights higher on the agenda in other economic decisions as well. How about sweatfree trade, financial, and tax policies?
Now is the time to break old habits of buying cheap no matter the social and economic cost and boldly promote social and economic justice as indispensable to economic recovery. Sweatfree cities and states can help lead the way if we reject kneejerk reaction to crisis, placing price and short-term gain before the long-term wellbeing of workers and communities. Sweatfree cities and states can show that good morals is good economy, that caring for those of us who are worst off is good for all of us. Now that we can more easily talk about government as a positive force we should seize the moment and let it become one.